Mindfulness Exercises: And Now For Your Virtual Vacation

My good friend Lori is a great writer and has started taking virtual vacations. This is a great mindfulness exercise for anyone who needs a break from the rain or the snow or the office. Ever wanted to go to England but don’t have the time or money? Just sit back and let Lori be your tour guide.

For years I have introduced clients to Neil Gaiman’s five-minute and twenty-three second walk through fantasy land called, “Instructions”. A Buddhist may encourage you to listen to a rock grow. Some people go tanning. Many of us have a go-to song for when we are feeling low or pouty. I’ve recently reconnected with my 12-year-old self who likes doing “Dot To Dots”. Some of us go fishing or take a nap or watch that channel with video cameras at places on the planet where people are having way more fun than you are right now. The vehicle doesn’t really matter, it’s the journey and the destination which counts.

Most of the tools I teach clients are cheesy. I am fond of reminding you in counseling that you are probably going to know some of the things I will re-teach you; counseling is not really rocket science. My job is to remind you of your better intentions, and help you learn ways of coping with life that you already know, but may not know how to use.

Sometimes on the way home I will open my Ginkgo App on my phone and tune into Gaiman’s  Instructions. Eyes closed, body relaxed, a few minutes of fantasy in a world of reality. I listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s soothing voice on a regular basis as well. When I read Lori’s Sibton Park Wilderness Reserve, a private country estate where we can immerse ourselves in 4,500 acres of sprawling, quintessential English landscape, only two hours from Central London, my imagination paints a picture, if only for a moment, of something that isn’t stressful or asking for money or complaining about the dogs. A few years ago I had an opportunity to go to Hawaii and recorded the waves lapping on the shore. Every now and then I watch that video on my phone. Mindfulness.

People who come to see me know that I believe in cheesy tools. I still have my Wisdom Rock, it’s in my manbag right by my feet. I still practice STOPP Therapy and mindfulness and centering exercises and breathing and refocusing whenever I think of them. People spend thousands of hours getting in shape but don’t take care of their emotional well-being. That’s nuts. I’m not sure how some people do it, but I would be cray cray if I didn’t pay attention, on a regular basis, to my mind games.

I am a big fan of doing things I really like to do. If you tell me you have a boat and want me to come outside with you and hit a lake or the ocean, I will suddenly make myself available. We are all far more motivated to do those things which feed something in our life or are deemed pleasurable. The only counseling tools that work for me are the ones I like doing. Ask me to get up and pray for an hour in the morning and I’ll fail. Give me a great book or drag me behind a boat and I’m a Jedi. You need to find what works for you. I have harassed readers and clients for years about podcasts and audiobooks but that may not turn you on. The key is to keep looking until you find what works for you. I stumbled into audiobooks; others fall into art or school or philosophy, or they dress up like knights and princesses and pretend to like the taste of grog.

Few clients complain when the homework I give them is to lay out in the sun for an hour. Eat cheesecake in a mindful fashion. Listen to Cabin Pressure while walking your dog. Meditate in the hot tub. Barbecue more. Sleep in this weekend. Read a book by candlelight in the bathtub and lock the door. Get a massage. See, you can do this.

Take care of yourself out there.

Teen Spirit

First blog post from a colleague and friend who is perhaps the best youth counsellor I know. Welcome aboard Dawn!

Clear Path Counselling

Youth groups are truly an amazing beast. They tend to take on a life of their own, for good and sometimes not so good. When I am facilitating a youth group I am often in awe at the wisdom that comes to the table and when the mood is just right, we get to hear the most brilliant morsels of teenage insight.

Yesterday I ran 2 youth groups. One group is for youth who are deemed to be relatively stable and without much substance use. I created the course content with two colleagues in my field and we each bring to the table a unique perspective on our training and experiences in working with adolescents. The other group is a drop-in style where we merely open the floor for discussion based on what the youth need to discuss in that given day. Each group has its challenges, and yesterday was…

View original post 385 more words

My Dog Has Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And He’s A Racist.

My dog has Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is my day job and I have watched literally hundreds of human clients who have struggled with GAD so I feel qualified to diagnose my dog. Human persons with mental health issues are diagnosed primarily on symptomatology; you tell the doctor what is wrong with you and he sends you to a psychiatrist who will, after talking with you for a part of an hour or two, tell you what is wrong with your head. Don’t get me started on misdiagnosis.

The point is, people with anxiety have specific symptoms. We have tests with tags like GAD-7 and a myriad of other initials which can be employed to help a professional give you a label to wear for the rest of your life. My dog has classic symptoms. He was a rescue from Taiwan, where it is believed he was hit by a car, or cars. He is deathly afraid of cars and suspicious of men. He has issues. And, oh ya, Lenny is also incredibly racist. He will, without fail, growl at anyone who looks of Southeast Asian descent. There is no intent to imply this is in any measure, excusable; it just is. My dog is a racist. A racist with panic attacks.

We have tried to Cesar Millan the crap out of him but he’s still afraid of so many things. Any motorized machine stresses him out. Noises bother him. My wife tried sitting with Lenny beside the busy street for a half hour, triggering a series of panic attacks. We can walk both dogs off-leash and get all uppity about dog training, but we cannot stop Lenny from catastrophizing.

The thing is, we do not like to lose. My wife is a perfectionist who has purchased the books and can have your dog walking off-leash in no time. Our dogs are trained to follow subtle gestures and wait with food on their respective noses. Our dogs are trained, but Lenny refuses to stop being afraid.

I apologize if this is a tacky way to introduce the topic of anxiety, I mean no disrespect. It is not my intention to diminish or compare my hound’s anxiety issues with the personal nightmare many are experiencing. Having said that, Lenny is a walking, cowering, illustration of fear and anxiety, day after day after day, and this has often prompted me to think about anxiety.

Here comes the human part.

As a clinician I work, virtually every day, with patients who are, even as they read this little ditty, struggling with anxiety on levels which would, quite frankly, shock people who have never had to worry about worrying or been afraid of anything. Friends and relatives of those who struggle with intense emotional issues are prone to tell the victim that they are, not to put too fine a point on it, weak and fragile. They feel too much. They lack impulse control. Why can’t you just get over it, already? Do some breathing exercises and suck it up princess. Life is not a safe place and you need to come to terms with the way things are and stop being so insecure and afraid. Grow up. (Insert condescending put-down here).

Anxiety disorders are a real thing, and if you have never experienced these emotions it can be difficult to understand how much of a freak show living with anxious thoughts can really be. Those who have, by way of comparison, lived through a few seasons of depression usually understand how hard it is to describe how bad depression can really get. There is a place beyond sadness, a decaying ruin where emotions go to die. Those who have lived in the pale understand why people commit suicide. Mental health struggles are no joke, and it’s time we admit to ourselves that psychiatric issues can ruin our lives and the lives of those around us.

Anxiety is a crippling disorder. If you are struggling with that nightmare please talk to someone and get help. There are things much worse than 6 months of medication or a year of counseling. I’m not even sure where I’m headed in this article other than to say – what you are experiencing, anxiety or depression or grief or feelings of loneliness or hopelessness; whatever is going on deep inside is important and you are not necessarily crazy or weak or misguided or useless. Life is hard enough when things go well; most of us could use a year of counseling sometime in our lives. As I have been saying for years, we are going through the most significant cultural shift since The Enlightenment and if you are not stressed just a little bit you probably aren’t paying attention or have a proactive self-medicating procedure.

Go To Sleep

I have three grandchildren. Young kids marrying young kids, marrying young kids. Now that they have spawned, I regularly tell my children they are redundant, sperm donors who no longer serve any other familial purpose. I am a counselor so I’m used to being honest with people for money.

Isaac is two-years-old and a force of nature. He is the one in the beer hat, although we would never do that and I get one first. Isaac and I are joined at the hip and he is definitely my little man.

Friday mornings are my time with the boys. For a few hours every week, along with other more varied appearances, they are the center of my universe. This morning we raced cars over each others heads while Isaac smacked me in the chest with a hammer. Angus, the heir to the throne, is so far away from his little brother on a personality level it is sometimes difficult to believe they are, in point of fact, genetically linked. Angus is all business, and business is good. Angus is wonder and imagination and joy. Right now he carries his Rapunzel everywhere we go, and that is perfectly fine with Papa. Brilliant and insightful, Gus is my life. He started sleeping over when he was just five weeks old and we share a heart.

Papa. Saying that makes me feel old, but once you’ve met my grandkids it’s hard to go back. Every Sunday night we all come together for Family Dinner. There is a little granddaughter now as well, my beautiful Amelia; the first girl in a long line of boys. Her eyes, like her father’s, are black as night. She rocks my world, my beautiful raven-haired monkey.

Isaac is nuts.

On Friday mornings, sometime around noon, I crawl into the bunk to rub his back to sleep, as I watch him try, one more time, to stave off the inevitable. With my hand on his back I can witness all the stages; the fight to keep the eyes open, the twitching and the settling, those final attempts to stay awake. My hand is witness to the epic struggle for the night. It is a very tactile and intimate sharing.

Go to sleep. Papa loves you but you are going to lose. There are times in our lives when we all need to so something that is good for us, in spite of our best intentions. Life is an exercise in learning to lose and then learn. That is what it means to grow up. I do not go to work everyday purely because I cannot wait to spend all day away from home. Sometimes we have to eat broccoli, in spite of the obvious fact that it smells a bit like puke.

When I was a teenager I did not understand what it meant to be an adult. Why sure, I knew absolutely everything in the world, but not that. It is impossible, it seems, to really know how the journey goes until you are looking back at some part of the road. Being a grown-up is about learning to do things that aren’t always fun for reasons beyond my own selfish desire for personal gratification.

It takes him a while to give up the fight and just lose. The twitching abates and he begins to relax, finally. It’s for his own good, though try to explain that to my little party-in-a-can. Many people have a hard time letting reality really sink in. We desperately want to keep our hand on the wheel and it’s hard to convince us that we will not win this fight. As Mr. Smith said, “that is the sound of inevitability”.

People often see me for months before they are will give up their incorrect assumptions and well-worn dysfunctional beliefs that feel so real but are so wrong. I know this has worked in the past but this is 2016 and it may not work this time. Time to learn, yet again. When will I ever figure this thing out?

Last night I spoke at Excel Martial Arts Black Belt Class. Here’s what I told them:

Excel Martial Arts Talk 1     1/8/16

Last year I did a talk for the people who carry guns and keep us safe. They asked me to talk about Social Media Addiction. I mean, let’s be honest, the average youth in Canada spends almost 9 hours EVERY DAY plugged into their phone and laptop and tablet and watch and Nook and a hundred other ways we mindlessly give up our Zen every day.

So they asked me to talk about social media addiction but when I was writing the talk I got bored so I started to talk about Edward Snowden and the Deep Web and Dark Net. One day it dawns on you that there is an entirely other Internet that no one you know has ever heard about, well except that one person who pretends they know everything. One day you realize you’ve been asleep all this time and the world was very different from what you thought it was.

People come and talk to me for a living. They sit in my office and confess that they aren’t sure why they came; and it isn’t long before they are telling me that they think they might be depressed. Life has lost its lustre and purpose. Existence is boring and they have privately wondered if they should go back to school, maybe take psychology. Then it happens. I begin to see a little rip in the fabric of reality and it dawns on me, they want to wake up. It is a cheesy 1990’s Matrix remake which opens with the lines, “She is unhappy but doesn’t understand why”.

Time to wake up. One day you begin to realize that you live in the cheesy Matrix Movie and everyone around you is going about their life half-asleep, talking about sports and reality television and crap that doesn’t matter. It begins to dawn on you why religious books call people sheep, because no one seems to be thinking anymore. We’re all so busy with life and work and responsibilities, and who has time or energy to read books by dead people or think too hard at the end of the day? Who has time when there are still six more episodes of Making a Murderer?

It is important to understand how much you do not understand. As Voltaire is famously (if a bit sexist…ly?) quoted, it is more important to learn to ask the right questions than to seek the answer. “Judge a man by his questions”, he quipped, “rather than by his answers”. I have recently recognized how bankrupt my own education has been, the years wasted answering stupid questions; all the while surrounded by awe. I believed with all my heart that I was fully conscious, but I was asleep.

The Meaning of Life is about finding out about the meaning of life. The meaning of your life. It’s about waking up. Who are you? Do you understand why you are alive? Do you comprehend the vast wonder of the universe and the quantum leap which we label reality? Have you come to that place beyond emotional enslavement and learned to view your life with growing dispassion? Do you look around you and know that you are different?

You may think you are a rock star but if you are not thinking about the meaning of life there is at least a chance that you are snoring away.

If you want to be a Jedi, and I do, you must be willing to let go of many things which matter to you so very much. Coping mechanisms. Delusions of personal grandeur. Sacred and holy beliefs. The roadmap. The mere humility required is staggering. To be willing to question one’s own firm reality is nothing less than grappling with a psyche on the fringes of delusion. If you woke up tomorrow and I told you that up was down, would you believe me? If you knew that everything you were taught, much of what you have believed your entire life, and known with certainty to be real and firm and rational, may in fact be wrong. Unbelievable. Literally.

But it’s true.

What most people don’t understand is that THIS is how you get “better”. You either hurt enough you have to or learn enough you want to. It’s literally our choice.

Waking up is hard to do.

We love to pretend; pretend we are not getting older, pretend that our relationship will magically fix itself, pretend that we will reach our goals in spite of doing nothing. We pretend that our addictions are not hurting us, our anger issues are not so bad, the way we treat our partner is not abusive. We pretend that we don’t need counselling or that our childhood trauma, if we ignore it long enough, will stop affecting our lives. We pretend that we are happy. We pretend that we are not afraid of death. We pretend that we can continue to ignore our problems, skim through life without passion, buy useless crap and consume, consume, consume and this will bring us lasting contentment and joy.

I don’t believe in magic. I gave up believing in magic wands a long time ago and things won’t just be fine. I no longer believe that all you need is faith and your problems will cease to be your problems. The real world is messy.

Wake up Isaac, Papa wants to fight.

Why We Care More About Paris

The world feels like a terrifying place. People are dying in Paris while at a middle class concert. What if we are next?

Catastrophizing is normal, when we hear stories like this. Suddenly the world feels a little less safe. People in Mission, British Columbia are talking about not attending concerts in Vancouver because ISIS might attack. The world has changed.

The funny thing is, Canada is generally safer than it ever has been. Crime, thanks to DNA and technology and changing societal norms, is actually down in many areas. So why are we so afraid?

This topic has been addressed at length so I will not linger long, en route to where we may land. Psychologists and Cultural Anthropologists and The Huffington Post will tell you that one of the reasons we are more prone to feel unsafe in the 21st Century is because we are so much more aware of what is going on in our world. Let’s be honest; before you got your smart phone and tablet did you really know as much about geocultural politics and the Kurds and weirdos like Justin Bieber or the Kardashians? Twenty years ago you would have heard about Donald Trump from a newspaper or on The National (in Canada) with Harvey Kirk and Lloyd Robertson. If you were a conservative you watched Nolton Nash. The mere fact that I can recall their names without Googling the show is a testament to the influence of television on popular culture. The war in Iraq was the first world conflict you could watch, 24 hours a day, in real-time. Palestinians and the Ukrainian struggle and Syrian refugees and radical extremists and Hillary Clinton all know that using the media can change the world.

This week many of my friends morphed their Facebook profiles to a watermark of the French flag, in recognition of the horrific events in Paris. The last time I looked 129 people had perished and well over 300 are injured, many critically. The sheer magnitude of the carnage is staggering and wrong on so many levels. While there seems to be nothing that you can do, there is something powerful about a community, a world, coming together to cry. People changed their Facebook status because they gave a damn.

The criticism was immediate. In the flattened age of virtual opinions and unending criticisms it was not surprising that many took offense to such overt gestures towards what was arguably a predominantly middle-class European culture which we consider our fantasy playground. No one changed their Facebook pictures when 147 Kenyan students were gunned down earlier this year. There have been claims that such inherent racism pervades culture and is the predominant reason why we do not care about the plight of the african black woman. But is that really all that is going on here? Many who jumped on the bandwagon for Paris care deeply about the issues in Africa and some I know have spent significant dollars and time on-site trying to make a difference. Surely they cannot be accused of caring more about the WASP culture?

Like many in my field I tend to look at life through a psychological lens. This may not be your cup of tea and that’s perfectly fine with me; this just helps me make sense of my world. When I hear the accusations of racial bias I cannot help but remember all the studies and books that mentioned how we are naturally biased towards similarity, but in a primal way. Thousands, even hundreds of years ago it was fundamentally important to know how to distinguish friend from foe; and the ability to discern who shared our cultural and tribal values was a very important skill indeed. We are under the fallacy that the world we know today, with our world-wide web and instant credit and all that peace on earth and live and let live crap, is how it has always been. Surely we’ve come so far from such things?

French people are like us. They share our values and we like their desserts. There is an inherent cultural bias towards those who smile when we step on their land. Middle Africa feels like an unending war zone with poverty and desert and politics we cannot begin to comprehend. We watched Hotel Rwanda and we saw the machetes, and a few of us have even watched Beasts Of No Nation, but we know nothing about what it must be like to be a child soldier who watched his family killed in front of his eyes.

Recently I read a great book, I can’t even remember the name because there have been a lot of great books lately, but the author explained how studies have shown that the maximum number of people you can really care about is 1. Let me explain.

When 129 people die in Paris or 147 in Kenya we do not care 127 or 147 times more than if one person died in Paris or Kenya. We do not care 8 times more if 8 people die or even 5 times more if 5 people die. What researchers found is that you don’t even care twice as much if 2 people die. The maximum amount of random people you can care about with all your caring muscle is 1. I can also care a bunch more if that one person is in my family, or one of my friends. When a Canadian soldier dies, I care. I care a bit less when a soldier from another country dies. I don’t mean to be a jerk about it but the science is fairly good on this. Now you can see where I am headed.

Similarity invokes compassion. This is not something we really need to brag about but it may not be racism, at least in the overt sense that you are a freaking racist pig. Affinity does stuff to us on a biological and anthropological level. One of my good friends once confessed to me how uncomfortable he constantly felt because he was the only gay man in the room. He felt a sense of aloneness. Humans seek companionship and community. Meeting another Canadian on a beach in Cancun becomes a bonding experience. Why in God’s name would I want to go out to dinner with someone just because they are a part of the group of 32,000,000 that I belong to?

At the end of the day I really want to go to middle Africa. As an ignorant suburban lightweight I owe it to myself to take the time to fall in love with people whom I would never have met otherwise. Our world is pregnant with incredible cultures that will expand your horizons and teach you lessons you will never learn at home. People who know me know that I constantly tell people to go to Europe. I cannot even explain to you, if you have never been, what the experience is like. Europe ruined me for my homeland. People from other parts of the world dream of visiting Canada. I dream about living in Europe. Some of you know what I am talking about.

What happened in Paris was a tragedy. Syria and Palestine, Nigeria and Kurdistan. The more we understand about these foreign cultures the more apparent it becomes that there is a universal sense of community which transcends culture or race.

No matter where in the world I have travelled, there seems to commonality, an essential desire for community and meaning. We have been divided by artificial constraints conceived in fear and propagated by economics. There is, within humanity, an essential sameness that many hope will someday transcend the petty and broken institutions and governments which serve to remind us how different and foreign the “other” is.